How to paint from a reference photo
A cityscape painting by Nancie King Mertz

Pastel artist Nancie King Mertz works from photo references and from life en plein air. Known for her cityscapes of Chicago, here she explains how she takes a dull reference photo and creates from it a lively scene.

How I Paint Cityscapes
BY NANCIE KING MERTZ

I began this piece (shown at top) with the “tick mark map” I always use: I simply place quick notes of vine charcoal on the surface (mounted UART #320), indicating the perspective and the structure placement. Various warm and cool darks (only) are then applied with my signature Richeson soft pastels, using the side in broad strokes, but with a light touch. In this painting, the darks formed a “U” to indicate the street, cars, and structures. By treating them all as one dark value-shape, the design is more cohesive as I later paint over with mid and light values.

But before I introduce any mid to light values, the darks are washed in with denatured alcohol and a #6 Grey Matters fan brush. I use a vertical stroke when painting buildings, and this initial brushwork helps define windows and subtle details as the painting progresses. After a short drying time, I begin with the mid and light values, cleaning up the brushwork and carving out the negative space around the hard elements.

The side getting the most direct light becomes the “warm side” by pushing the color into the reds and golds. The opposite side of the street is cool, and consists of blues, violets, and blue greens. However, strong light bounces onto buildings opposite, so I always include a few subtle warm color notes on the cool side to heighten the color harmony. Warm greens are added to the sunlit trees, serving as a balance to the cool green opposite.

The Sienna pastel box and my signature Urban and Atmospheric Landscape pastels and brushes are all compliments of the Jack Richeson Co. This is my travel set for plein air, demos, and workshops, and it all fits into a rolling cart that I place in the overhead bin when flying — easy-peasy!

For a step-by-step visual demo of my process, the Urban Pastel Painting video by Liliedahl allows the painter to follow along to create a painting of “the L” that Chicago is famous for.

Related > Listen to Eric Rhoads interview Nancie King Mertz on the PleinAir Podcast (originally published May 2018):

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